Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Outhouse to Penthouse: Flames Have Morphed Into One of the Best Teams in the NHL

Truth be told, tying a franchise record was something many envisioned the Calgary Flames doing four months ago.

Just not this type of record.

At the time, a 5-10-1 start to the season had riled up fans calling for coach Glen Gulutzan to be fired.

For his poor choice of coach, never mind his blunder in trading for Brian Elliott, frustrated fans were calling for GM Brad Treliving to be fired.

Angered by dreadful special teams -- the power play in particular, irritated fans were calling for assistant coach Dave Cameron to be fired.

Around the same time Donald Trump was being voted in as President, the only thing on the mind of some hockey fans in Calgary was voting out the Flames current administration. In the spirit of Trump's old television show The Apprentice -- you're fired, you're fired, and you're fired.

Was the Worst of the Worst of Times

Playing abysmal .344 hockey heading into a mid-November Tuesday night clash with the Wild in Saint Paul, Minnesota, the dubious franchise record that looked very much endangered was for futility -- lowest points percentage in a season.

Revisiting each of the 43 seasons since Atlanta entered the NHL, the 1997-98 Flames under coach Brian Sutter, hold the distinction of being the worst club in franchise history. With a 26-41-15 record, a .409 points percentage made it the all-time worst campaign, just behind the 1972-73 expansion season for Atlanta (25-38-15, .417).

But surely this club with its clueless coach, mistake-prone GM and shoddy special teams, was going to threaten that mark.


Instead of tying a record for futility, which would have surprised nobody had you asked them four months ago, the club instead made the good kind of history on Monday night, winning its 10th game in a row.

Not since Oct. 14 to Nov. 3, 1978 when the Flames were in Atlanta, had the team rattled off 10 consecutive victories.

Perceived Turning Point

Many will point to the night seven weeks ago at the Bell Center in Montreal when Gulutzan ripped his team after a 5-1 loss to the Canadiens, as the pivot point in the season.

You can see why too.

With one game to go until the NHL's all-star break, Calgary went into the five-day layoff on a high thanks to a 3-2 overtime win in Ottawa, Johnny Gaudreau notching the game-winning goal. The Flames have been the hottest team in the NHL since that point and it's not even close.

Best NHL Teams Since Jan. 26 (by winning percentage):

1. Calgary, 18 gm, 15-2-1, 31 pts, .861 PT%, +20 goals
T2. Boston, 18 gm, 13-5-0, 26 pts, .722 PT%, +22 goals
T2. Chicago, 18 gm, 13-5-0, 26 pts, .722 PT%, +20 goals
4. Pittsburgh, 21 gm, 13-4-4, 30 pts, .714 PT%, +18 goals
5. Tampa Bay, 19 gm, 11-4-4, 26 pts, .684 PT%, +11 goals

However, as dreadful as that sequence of games were leading up to Gulutzan's eruption in Montreal -- Calgary falling behind in four consecutive games 4-0 (versus Nashville), 5-0 (versus Edmonton), 4-0 (in Toronto) and 5-0 (in Montreal) -- the club was still sitting in a playoff spot. Sure, they were barely clinging to the second wild card, but nonetheless they were still in the top eight.

Real Turning Point

For me, the turnaround traces back to two months before that.

It all goes back to Nov. 15 at the Xcel Energy Center, the night most famous as the night of the Wild's 21-slash salute on Gaudreau. The chippy game would culminate with the Flames star forward exiting the game with a broken finger that would require surgery and would sideline him for three weeks.

Remember the setting that evening. The worst team in the NHL up against the second-best team in the West and in Minnesota's home barn where they had lost just once up until that point.

On a goal six minutes into the first period by Gaudreau, a real dandy at that, and 27 stirling saves from Chad Johnson, Calgary won 1-0. Two unexpected points and while it looked a mere blip at the time given the casualty from that game, it would turn out to be the start of something special.

Without Gaudreau moving forward, the team realized that now more than ever, they needed to play the way Gulutzan had been imploring them to play. They had to play the system the first-year coach had been trying to instill. No one player was going to be able to lead this team, it had to be a collective team effort.

And on a dime, that's when the turnaround came.

Season of Two Extremes

In Gaudreau's absence, Calgary went 6-3-1. When he returned, the Flames promptly whipped Anaheim 8-3 at the Saddledome, Gaudreau opening the scoring on his first shift.

Playing .344 hockey prior to that point in mid-November, Calgary has played .670 hockey in 53 games since. It's been an absolutely staggering turnaround.

For skeptics around the league clinging to the notion that this run is merely a hot streak, that would be inaccurate. We're talking about a four month sample size and the equivalent of two-thirds of a season.

For context to how good this team has played over that period, only once in the franchise's previous 43 seasons have the Flames played .670 or greater hockey in a season. That was 1988-89 when under the guidance of coach Terry Crisp, Calgary won its only Stanley Cup.

Best Five Seasons in Flames Franchise History (by winning percentage):

1. 1988-89, 80 gm, 54-17-9, 117 pts, .731 PT%
 < 2016-17, 53 gm, 34-16-3, 71 pts, .670 PT% >
2. 1987-88, 80 gm, 48-23-9, 105 pts.656, PT%
3. 2005-06, 82 gm, 46-25-11, 103 pts, .628 PT%
4. 1990-91, 80 gm, 46-26-8, 100 pts, .625 PT%
5. 1989-90, 80 gm, 42-23-15, 99 pts, .619 PT%

Obviously, we're a long way from the season being over, but this historical context gives you a sense of just how good this team has played the past four months.

Across the league, the only team with a better record in the West over this period has been the Minnesota Wild. Yes, that's the same Wild that Calgary swept in their three-game season series.

Best NHL Teams Since Nov. 15 (by winning percentage):

1. Columbus, 55 gm, 37-14-4, 78 pts, .709 PT%, +45 goals
2. Minnesota, 53 gm, 35-13-5, 75 pts, .708 PT%, +46 goals
3. Washington, 54 gm, 35-13-6, 76 pts, .704 PT%, +66 goals
4. Pittsburgh, 53 gm, 33-13-7, 73 pts, .689 PT%, +42 goals
T5. Calgary, 53 gm, 34-16-3, 71 pts, .670 PT%, +24 goals
T5. San Jose, 53 gm, 32-14-7, 71 pts, .670 PT%, +29 goals
7. Chicago, 52 gm, 32-17-3, 67 pts, .644 PT%, +16 goals
8. Ottawa, 52 gm, 30-17-5, 65 pts, .625 PT%, +8 goals
9. Anaheim, 53 gm, 29-17-7, 65 pts, .613 PT%, +5 goals
10. NY Rangers, 52 gm, 27-17-8, 62 pts, .611 PT%, +12 goals

Special teams has experienced a similar turnaround over this same period.

On Nov. 15, Calgary's power play (9.4 percent) ranked 29th, only ahead of Ottawa (9.3). Since then, the Flames have operated at a 23.6 percent clip, which is second to Buffalo (24.6).

On the same date, the Flames penalty kill (73.0 percent) also ranked 29th, only ahead of Chicago (66.7). Since then, Calgary has been a much-improved 83.5 percent, which ranks them sixth over that time period.

Final Word

There is still a long way to go this season and as the players continue to say, just making the playoffs remains their focus.

In comparing the Flames, Ducks and Oilers remaining schedules, Calgary does have the more difficult final stretch. But does that even matter? The Flames have fared just fine against most of the NHL's top teams:
  • Won all three games against Minnesota
  • Won two of three against San Jose
  • Won both against Pittsburgh
  • Won both against Ottawa
  • Also have wins over Chicago, Columbus, Montreal and Anaheim

"We're beating some good teams, we're playing some good hockey, but we've still got a ways to go.," says Mark Giordano. "To put together a streak like this at this time of year, we control our own fate down the stretch."

That they do. Now 10 points clear of the Los Angeles Kings with only 13 games to go. It would take a monumental collapse to not qualify for the post-season now.

Even if Calgary was to revert to playing .344 hockey for the rest of the year, just like they played for the first five weeks, that still gets them to 91 points. That would force LA to win 10 of its final 14 games. For reference, the Kings have won just six of their last 14.

“It’s that confidence," says Elliott. "It’s a little bit of a rollercoaster ride and you have to stay right in the middle. To have that confidence to do that, to not get too up or too down, that’s what it takes to win at this time of year and we’re learning how to do that on a nightly basis."

Elliott has been a big reason behind the team's strong play of late. In his last 15 starts, he's 13-1-1 with a 1.91 goals-against average, a .934 save percentage and two shutouts.

Flames will go for the record Wednesday night when Boston visits the Saddledome. The Bruins are the NHL's second-hottest team since Jan. 26, but against this Flames club with a coach that people are now on board with, a GM no longer in the bad books and with dangerous special teams, it's the Bruins that have to face a tough opponent, more so than the opposite.

Photo Credit: Johnny Gaudreau photo at the top by Jeff McIntosh of The Canadian Press

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  1. I believe, at their lowest, the Flames were -20 goal differential early in the season. It took until a game last week vs Montreal to crawl out of goal differential hell. That they are now +6 in this category is nothing short of amazing.

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    2. Oilers were +12 goal differential to start the season when they went 7-1-0. Since then, they are -2

  2. The Flames have beaten 27 teams this year including Boston. The only teams not on their W list are Washington and Edmonton.